A famous temple of the Phoenician-Punic deity Melqart, located near the ancient city of Gadir (now Cádiz), became a temple dedicated to Hercules Gaditanus under the Romans. Now experts believe they’ve found the temple submerged in the Bay of Cádiz in southern Spain.
A major pilgrimage center in ancient times, the temple is frequently mentioned in Greek and Roman records. However, with time, as civilizations succeeded each other, it lost its importance and disappeared from active memory. Modern historians have long debated the location of this fabled temple dedicated to Hercules Gaditanus. Now, using digital terrain modelling (DTM or LiDAR technology), researchers from the University of Seville in collaboration with the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage (IAPH), believe they have found the ruins of the legendary sanctuary, reports Heritage Daily .
LiDAR image showing a rectangular structure submerged underwater which experts believe could be the Temple of Hercules Gaditanus. Source: University of Seville
“We researchers are very reluctant to turn archaeology into a spectacle, but in this case, we are faced with some spectacular findings. They are of great significance,” said an excited Francisco José García, the director of the department of Prehistory and Archaeology at Seville University, according to the newspaper El Pais . The research is based on a hypothesis by Ph.D. student Ricardo Belizón.
Bronze statue discovered at Sancti Petri in Cadiz in 1984 which experts believe represents Hercules Gaditanus. Now housed at the Museum of Cadiz. Experts have discovered several statues, including votive offerings, from the Phenician period, in the area between the islet and Boquerón point. (Jl FilpoC / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Ancient Temple of Melqart and Hercules Gaditanus
The Phoenicians were renowned traders and sailors of the ancient world. Living on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, their most magnificent city was Tyre. Sometime after 800 BC, shortly after they founded the famed city of Carthage (now in Tunisia), they found their way to Andalusia in southern Spain and settled there, Encyclopedia Britannica informs us.
An important deity of the Punic pantheon was Melqart (also known as Tyrian Baal), the principal God and protector of Tyre. The Carthaginians continued to worship Melqart. In fact, so supreme was deity for them that, for the first few centuries of its existence, Carthage sent one-tenth of its annual revenues to the Temple of Melqart in Tyre as tribute, explained a 2019 article in Ancient Origins . The Phoenicians took Melqart with them when they travelled westwards to Andalusia and founded a temple dedicated to the deity there.
The Romans conquered Andalusia between 210 and 206 BC and eventually established the Roman province of Baetica there. It was at this time that Melqart morphed into the hero/God Hercules of Classical Antiquity and the temple of Melqart in Gadir or Gades became the temple of Hercules Gaditanus. In this incarnation, the temple attracted a host of famous visitors.
It was where, according to Greek and Roman texts, Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal went to offer thanks for the success of his military campaign against the Carpathians in 220 BC. A century and a half later, Julius Caesar is said to have wept there before a representation of Alexander the Great , at the thought of his achievements far outstripping his own.
Structures which have been documented underwater. The team believes they found the remains of the temple of Hercules Gaditanus in the marshy channel leading to the castel of Sancti Petri off the coast of Cadiz. ( University of Seville )
Lost to the Modern World… and Found?
In the modern world, however, this temple was lost but for its mention in sources of Classical Antiquity. Historians and archaeologists have been searching for it for centuries. Several sites have been proffered for its location by academics at different times. The most recent one by the University of Seville and IPAH seems very plausible.
The site is a marshy channel and the castle of Sancti Petri rises above it. For the last two centuries, several artifacts like large marble and bronze statues of Roman emperors and smaller ones from the Phoenician times have been recovered from it, now displayed at the Museum of Cádiz.
Aerial view of the Castillo Sancti Petri off the coast of Cadiz in southern Spain, where researchers believe they have identified the temple of Hercules Gaditanus. ( luis / Adobe Stock)
The exact location, somewhere between the slopes of the islet itself and a rocky zone known as Boquerón point, has been pinpointed using DTM. The technology helped Belizón discover several aberrations in the terrain that revealed “a totally anthropized coastline, with a large building [the possible temple], several breakwaters, moorings and an inner harbor,” reports El Pais .
The rectangular 300 meter (984 ft) by 150 meter (492 ft) structure – covering the entire island on which it was built – lies submerged between 5 meters (16 ft) and 3 meters (9.8 ft) underwater and seems to fit the descriptions of the temple in the Classics, in terms of both its location as well as its structure as a great Phoenician monument. What’s more, the modelling exercise has also revealed an inner harbor or dock south of the temple, which was a flood zone until less than two centuries ago, and an important settlement along the coast with various buildings mainly from the Roman period yet to be identified.
However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other contenders for the post and the researchers need to do a lot more to establish that the ruined structure they have discovered is indeed the lost temple of Melqart- Hercules Gaditanus. More work is needed in terms of archaeological fieldwork on land and underwater to understand if they have really discovered the fabled Temple of Hercules Gaditanus .
“With these kinds of exceptional findings, we can get ahead of ourselves,” stated Antonio Saez Romero, professor of prehistory and archaeology and a member of the research team in El Pais reports. “We want to be very cautious. They are very interesting and hopeful, but it is now that the most exciting part begins.”